An environmental study on lakes in the Northern Alberta oil sands region that was released in early January is a welcome contribution to the body of knowledge that helps to inform industry, governments and regulators on important, complex issues.
The study by scientists from Queen's University and Environment Canada examined sediment from six lakes in the Athabasca area, up to 90 kilometres from where most of Alberta's oil sands are located. It showed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) increased in lake sediment since oil sands development began in the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, as is the case too often, some media chose to focus on narrow speculation instead of including the facts in broader context. In that context, the peer-reviewed study said:
- Maximum PAH concentrations in the six lakes are within the range typical of remote lakes and substantially lower than lakes in more urban areas. PAH concentrations in this study are lower than concentrations in Alberta lakes closer to towns and cities. In addition, the paper stated the increases in the lake 90 kilometres from the oil sands could not be attributed to oil sands operations.
- The highest observed PAH concentrations have not impacted studied species (Daphnia or zooplankton). In fact, some of the lakes are more productive than they were in 1960.
Perhaps most important, the study recognized its limits and recommended more research to understand the results, a conclusion strongly supported by the oil and gas industry. As such it is important to note these chemicals are part of the enhanced regional monitoring that the Alberta and federal governments are managing and industry is funding.
Measurement of contaminants is an important first step but it's just that - a first step. More research and scientific analysis is needed to determine what impact, if any, these substances may have on the environment and how best to address the trends and any impact.
Interestingly, another recent study showed no evidence that industrial activity has contributed measurably to sedimentary concentration of polyaromatic compounds in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, 200 kilometres to the north, suggesting increased PAH concentrations are localized to the oil sands mining area.
And in 2010, the Royal Society of Canada commissioned an expert panel of scientists to assess, among other things, the impact of the oil sands on regional water systems. The panel said: "Current evidence on water quality impacts on the Athabasca River system suggests that oil sands development activities are not a current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability."
All of this research is important to our industry because we take seriously our commitment to long-term, responsible development of Canada's oil and gas resources.Canada's 169 billion barrels of oil sands reserves - at least the third-largest source of oil on the planet - makes a large and growing contribution to meeting global energy demand, which is conservatively forecast to increase by about 40 per cent over the next 20 years.
As we've said in the past, all industries have an impact on the environment, oil and gas included. Scientific research, transparency, monitoring and industry reporting processes are crucial to understanding industrial contaminents and balancing our need for environmental protection, economic growth and secure, reliable energy supply.
The oil and gas industry spends billions annually to improve its environmental performance - reducing impact, reclaiming and restoring lands, and pursuing new technology and innovation - but we know we can't stand still.
Ultimately, transparent, science-based research helps governments and regulators make policy decisions and implement regulations that industry must follow to develop the oil sands.
As is made clear in the funding of this monitoring by industry, we strongly support this type of environmental monitoring and transparency.